A lorry container became a “tomb” as 39 desperate men, women and children suffocated inside, a court has heard reports the BBC.
Temperatures in the unit reached an “unbearable” 38.5C as the Vietnamese nationals were sealed inside for at least 12 hours, jurors were told.
Their bodies were found when the container was eventually opened in Purfleet, Essex, on 23 October, 2019.
Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison and Gheorghe Nica are on trial at the Old Bailey accused of manslaughter.
The pair are also accused of being part of a people-smuggling conspiracy with another lorry driver, Christopher Kennedy, and Valentin Calota.
‘Fraught with danger’
Opening their Old Bailey trial, Bill Emlyn Jones told jurors it was a “sad and unavoidable truth” that some people were prepared to go to great lengths to come to the UK “for a better life”, adding the cost was some £10,000 per person.
He told jurors: “Obviously, any time you fill an airtight container with a large number of people, where they will be left for hours and hours, with no means of escape and no means of communication with the outside world – well, it is fraught with danger.”
Mr Emlyn Jones said the victims – aged between 15 and 44 – were “husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters”.
He told how Mr Harrison drove them to Zeebrugge in Belgium, where the container was loaded on to a cargo ship bound for the UK.
Another lorry driver, Maurice Robinson, then collected the trailer from Purfleet in Essex when it arrived just after midnight on 23 October, the court heard.
The prosecutor said that by then it had been some 12 hours at least since “any meaningful amount of fresh air had been let into the sealed container”.
Robinson had been sent a message from his boss to “give them air quickly, but don’t let them out”, the court heard.
“What he found must haunt him still,” Mr Emlyn Jones said. “For the 39 men and women inside, that lorry had become their tomb.”
The refrigerator had not been turned on during the journey, meaning the temperature inside the trailer rose to 38.5C, he added.
When Mr Kennedy learned of the deaths, he told a friend there “must have been too many and run out of air”, the court heard.
Mr Emlyn Jones said: “What it must have been like inside that lorry does not bear thinking about. In fact, we do have some direct evidence of what the victims were going through, recovered from some of their mobile phones.”
One victim – 28-year-old Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh – had written a text message that was never sent, saying: “Maybe going to die in the container, can’t breathe any more dear.”
“They had no signal inside the container, so could not call for help or alert the outside world to their plight. But naturally, in desperation, they tried,” Mr Emlyn Jones said.
Nica, 43, of Basildon, Essex, and Mr Harrison, 23, of Mayobridge, Co Down, Northern Ireland, deny 39 counts of manslaughter.
Nica has admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration between 1 May 2018 and 24 October 2019.
Mr Harrison, Mr Calota, 37, of Birmingham, and Mr Kennedy, 24, of Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, deny the conspiracy charge.
The trial continues.